New life for downtowns

Construction projects are transforming Edmonton's and Calgary's urban cores

Downtown may have been the finest place for singer Petula Clark, but in Alberta's largest cities, some urban neighbourhoods have been places to visit briefly-if at all-from the safety of the suburbs. But as environmental pressures, gasoline prices, and populations rise, developers and city planners are looking at these areas with a fresh eye. Here, Alberta Construction Magazine looks at a few projects designed to breathe life into once-dying urban areas.

A beacon of light

"The Aurora development is definitely an example of urban renewal in its finest form," says Jason Rumer, project manager for Carma Developers LP in Edmonton. Rumer is referring to Carma's first urban core multi-family project, a high-density, mixed-use, master-planned community being built in partnership with Urban Landmarks in Edmonton.

A former industrial and warehouse area, the stretch between 104th and 105th avenues where the Aurora will one day stand has sat dormant since the rail yards were moved, in spite of its proximity to downtown offices and amenities.

Doug Kelly, senior VP of Carma until his retirement, conceived the Aurora with the intent of revitalizing the area.

"Doug Kelly is a really passionate person," Rumer says. "He's passionate about the city and really wanted to see strong urban growth and development."

Kelly assembled six acres of land zoned for 200 units per acre. Maximum height restrictions, however, topped out at 15 storeys; the only way to achieve the maximum density was to have 12 buildings of the same height clustered on the site.

Not thrilled with the idea, Kelly and Reza Nasseri, CEO of the Landmark Group, developed a plan for fewer buildings of varying heights. The new plan opened up the site and allowed for the creation of green space. The city agreed, and approved new height restrictions in 2006.

When completed, the $500-million project will feature two 28-storey buildings, two 23-storey buildings, one 17-storey building, one eight-storey building, and two four-storey buildings, as well as a 1.25-acre urban park. Additionally, 25,000 sq ft. of commercial space will be built along 102nd Street.

Revitalization was a key concept in the design of the project. "Doug and Reza's vision was that this would be a well-lit beacon of light and energy in the area," Rumer says. That vision will be accomplished with exterior lighting on the buildings and pathways as well as colour in the landscaping year-round.

The design of the project should also bring people out onto the street, something that many downtown residential developments fail to do. "One concern people have about condo projects is that people drive into the underground parkade, get out underground, get into the elevator underground, and never really interact with the street," Rumer says. To bring vitality and activity to the street, the Aurora will feature walkout patios on street level units.

Once completed, approximately 2,400 people will live in the condos and townhomes of the Aurora. Says Rumer: "Just adding that many people to an area breathes a breath of fresh air on its own."

Rumer acknowledges that the addition of one project cannot guarantee the revitalization of an entire community. Just as important to the creation of a new look and feel for the community are the other buildings and projects within and surrounding it.

An LRT station is planned and the 28-storey Epcor Tower, the city's first new office tower in 22 years, will rise just across the street from the Aurora. "As Grant McEwan College continues to grow, that will add a lot of life as well," Rumer says.

Out with the old

A few blocks over, on the corner of Jasper and 104th Street, another building is contributing to an increasing vibrancy in Edmonton's core. Cecil Place, a 61,000 sq ft. brick and glass building comprised of retail and office space brings new energy while playing homage to the city's history.

"There was a need for some rebirth in the downtown area, and the Cecil Hotel, which had been there for many years, had been sort of a sore spot downtown for a very long time," says John Day, owner of Cecil Place. Day chose to demolish the hotel and build something that would attract quality tenants and bring new life to the area.

Injecting new life doesn't mean abandoning the past altogether, however. Cecil Place, which won the city's Award of Merit for Implemented Urban Design Plans, exhibits a modern reflection and interpretation of the history and uses of the area. One example? The area is home to a weekend farmers' market; the inclusion of an outdoor retail space for the upscale Sobey's urban market in the design of Cecil Place fosters a market atmosphere while contributing to pedestrian traffic on the street.

Clark Builders was general contractor for the project and has been intimately involved with the ongoing renewal of Edmonton's core. The company finished construction of Enterprise Square last year and has built several other buildings in the area, including Grant McEwan College and the Don Wheaton Family YMCA.

"They're all great projects, with great owners," says Paul Verhesen, president of Clark Builders. "But the ability to have an influence on or to improve the downtown core with good architecture, good buildings-as a Clark Builder team, we're very, very proud of that."

The construction of Cecil Place presented a challenge common to many urban renewal projects: there's not much room to move. "On all four sides we were constrained by either streets or buildings or lanes," Verhesen notes.

While transforming the old Hudson's Bay building into Enterprise Square, Clark Builders was able to make use of existing floor area for storing materials. In the construction of Cecil Place, however, the entire site was taken up by the building itself.

With so much experience in the core, Clark Builders dealt with the challenges and the new building was up in 14 months. Day is pleased with the success of the project, saying it's already bringing new life into the downtown.

Renewed riverbank

Calgary has turned its attention to the revitalization of its urban waterways. The Riverwalk project, projected to cost more than $20 million, will brighten 4 km of riverbank area in the downtown core.

The Riverwalk is intended to kick-start the revitalization of the East Village neighbourhood, a relatively undeveloped portion of the core that had become a bit of a haven for crime. But Chris Ollenberger, president of the Calgary Municipal Land Corp., says redevelopment of the riverbanks is an important project in itself.

"The Riverwalk project is a bigger project at the end of the day than just the East Village," he explains. "We needed to take the access to the river from a 4 ft asphalt path, which is currently in the East Village area, and make something a little better, a little more interesting-a better statement about who we are as Calgarians."

Extensive planning, including nine months of public consultation, went into creating a master plan, developed by Stantec Consulting Ltd., for the Riverwalk. The plan provides a vision for development that takes into consideration the differing natures of the Bow and Elbow rivers as well as ecological and safety needs.

The plan identifies 10 major points along the Bow and Elbow where work will be done. Strolls and promenades complete with urban plazas will be constructed. In the East Village, an urban waterfront will bring vibrancy to the street with urban plazas where people might sip coffee on a café patio while taking in public performances.

Detailed designs are in the works, and the Calgary Municipal Land Corp. plans to do preliminary work along one section of the river as part of another project this summer. Construction of the Riverwalk is expected to begin in late 2008 or early 2009.

The Calgary Municipal Land Corp., along with the Cantos Music Foundation, is also renovating the King Edward Hotel, which was constructed in 1905 and a one-time internationally renowned blues bar, as part of the revitalization of the East Village.

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